THE STORY OF NATASHA TRETHEWEY's life as a poet began with her mother’s death. Until then, though her father is a poet, poetry had not figured in her future plans. She was a 19-year-old college student at the University of Georgia when her mother died a tragic, untimely death.
In her telling, the young Trethewey felt the smallness of her loss measured against the immensity of the world and as if by an instinct of grief she remembered W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” The poem salved her suffering, and while her story is profoundly personal, Trethewey’s turn to poetry in a time of desperate need illustrates our primal desire for consolation. “Musée des Beaux Arts” gave Trethewey both an accompaniment to her sorrow and words to make sense of her incalculable loss.
The poem remains a stalwart in Trethewey’s emotional life, and she returned to it again for solace shortly before I interviewed her on December 17, 2012. It was the Monday morning after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and the passing of poet Jake Adam York, Trethewey’s close friend who collapsed from a sudden stroke only the day before. I knew from my research preparing for the interview that York’s and Trethewey’s careers were interwoven; theirs was a conversation on poetry and the world between true friends that had over the years formed a fabric of bold intention. Both poets hail from the deep South — York from Gadsden, Alabama and Trethewey from Gulfport, Mississippi — and both have cultivated a poetics born from an intimacy with Southern history and a passionate sense of social justice.
Given their friendship, it’s hard not to see Trethewey’s work in conversation with York’s, and her poetics builds from a lineage whose stylistic range includes, among others, Yeats, Robert Penn Warren, and Gwendolyn Brooks, yet together allude to poetry’s collective efforts to, in Adorno’s words, “imagine a world in which things might be different.” Still, in the bracing reality of Monday morning, I made my phone call with greater trepidation knowing that I would be interfering on her grief and that, further, to talk of poems somehow made us more powerless and more silent after the Newtown massacre and Jake’s death. What was I doing calling the poet laureate, who was after all only a private citizen in mourning, to ask her about metaphorical language?
JENNIFER CHANG: You’ve written that “the best repository for the most humane, ethical, and just expressions of feeling are in poetry” and that you write because you “cannot stand by and say nothing.” How do you translate that into a public engagement, especially now as the poet laureate? How can the writing process — the spontaneities of inspiration and creative work — connect to readers beyond the page and enact the ethical imagination?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: The inspiration or what comes to me as what I must write about always seems to come from the public sphere. It comes from what I observe in the world, what I read in history, and so the Library [of Congress] seems to me to be a good place for that continued kind of engagement with history because of all the things that it contains that I might on any given day browse through and find something there that strikes me as necessary to consider as language in the poem.
The position of poet laureate is a strange one in some ways. It’s not really designed to be the office of a public servant. I think that it’s still imagined as an honor that’s bestowed upon a poet, rather than duties that are handed to a poet. I think that I want to take on some duties because I feel that at any time we’re given such things, such honors, that much is expected of us. It seems to me a duty to return that with something outside of the self. And so I’m thinking that going there will serve not only a public interest from the office itself, a way to bring the public into the Library, into the Poetry and Literature Center. But it is also a way for me to put myself in a place where history lives. It lives in the records and the documents and the archives in the biggest library in the world. I think to enliven those things one does need to be publicly engaged to see how the history that you can access in the Library still speaks to our contemporary moment, what I can observe in the world.
JC: I’m curious how poems might do that. How do poems connect us to our history, our cotemporary moemnt, and to each other? And how do we bring poems closer to people and make them more present in everyday life?
NT: That’s the question that is of course behind the role of the poet laureate, if indeed that role has a public component to it. I was thinking about this as you were talking about the poems that you return to because the first thing that I did yesterday after hearing the news about my dear friend Jake Adam York was to turn back to Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” That was the poem that first showed me I wasn’t alone, so many years ago, after I’d lost my mother. You know those opening lines: “About suffering, they were never wrong.” That sentiment —here was the image of Icarus falling into the sea in the background and in the foreground the rest of the world was going on as if nothing had happened.
The poems we go to are different for all of us; we can’t know what poem is going to be the poem that brings someone to poetry, comforts them in times of grief, tragedy, and loss, or celebrates with them in times of joy and triumph. But it is our job — as poets, as teachers, as the poet laureate — to try to bring people to a wide variety of poems so they might find that one among the many. So how do we do that? We do it in our classrooms — certainly when you’re struggling to find the poem that’s finally going to excite that group of freshman or even that one particular holdout in the class. You know what I mean. You think this is going to be the one and you bring in more and more and more to do that.
Yesterday, I got an email from a friend of mine, Caroline Davis, who lives in Newtown, Connecticut. She was feeling powerfully fortunate in this difficult time in that town because her children were safe; they happened to go to a different school. She wrote to me wondering if I as the poet laureate had any opportunity to suggest to the president a poem that he might read before visiting Newtown. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any way of doing that. But she had suggested Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” I’d forgotten about it, so I got to read that yesterday too while thinking about all these recent losses, and I thought, yes, if people heard that poem, it might be one they would go back to.
I think there are other ways this happens, too. I remember watching The NewsHour one night and a woman named Melinda Kane came on the TV — she was being videotaped. At first, she was just talking: she was someone who had lost her son in the war and was being interviewed about it. But halfway through what she was saying I began to think, “This isn’t just this woman saying something. This is a poem.” And by the time she got to the end of it I realized I was right. It was indeed a poem and it was quite meaningful to me. I think this was a woman who perhaps doesn’t write poetry all the time, but in order to grapple with the loss of her son turned to it. And there she was reading what she’d written on The NewsHour. I could only imagine that at the same moment I was seeing her, hearing her words, and coming to the realization that they were a poem that other people were [realizing it] too. I bet you that they were as deeply moved as I was by what seemed like ordinary language that — by the time she was finished — was transformed into something else. To poetry. I’d like to think that people seeing that might turn to her poem — people who had experienced similar losses, or not — and would return to it for the depths of emotion and the honesty it conveyed.
JC: There is something very powerful about the right poem at the right moment. After the Newtown massacre, after not knowing how to talk about it, my friend sent me Derek Walcott’s “The Season of Phantasmal Peace” and reading it now— it’s almost mystical, and I hate saying that because I don’t want to give poetry some kind of talismanic power, but I needed Walcott’s poem this weekend. I think that’s what we’re talking about: there’s something about listening and changing one’s pace, paying attention to each other and to something too difficult to articulate by ourselves.
NT: I think that a lot of poets have this experience, too: you’re invited somewhere to give a reading and when it’s all over someone might come up to you and say, “I’ve never been to a poetry reading before. My mother, cousin, best friend, girlfriend, whoever, dragged me here, but I was so moved, particularly by your poem X, and I think I’ll read some more of your poems.” Now that’s certainly a very personal interaction, a person moved by a particular poet’s poem. But if their being moved by my work helps them seek out other work, then that’s part of what’s great about readings all over the country. Maybe someone at a bookstore getting a latte happens to hear a poem that stops him in his tracks, or a student’s forced to go to a reading for credit in a class she’s taking, or someone ends up going to a spoken word and poetry slam in my little downtown Decatur, wandering in because it looked like a scene, and then he hears something that makes him want to go back, and maybe sign up next time to read a poem of his own. To want to write that first poem is to commune with an audience that’s open to whatever it is you feel you must say, to whatever necessary utterance that first drew you there.
Since publishing her first book of poems, Domestic Work, in 2000, which chronicles the working class African Americans at mid-century, Natasha Trethewey has trained a scrupulous eye on unobserved everyday details. Private experiences animate, however quietly, public life: this is arguably the principal preoccupation of her work. In her poems, Trethewey spotlights the background and how what happens there can complicate and potentially supplant the foreground’s master narrative. She scours scenes from history, memory, and art for the overlooked or unacknowledged — often a word or phrase that elevates an ordinary experience into a radiant historical monument. Although her unadorned speech and polished formality may seem to sing an uncomplicated music, perceptive readers will note a nuanced and intrepid intellect that constantly mines language for secret histories and mines history for new language.
In Bellocq’s Ophelia, her second collection, for example, the poet’s encounter with a turn of the century photograph of an octoroon prostitute in New Orleans sparks a book-length sequence of verse epistles and sonnets that imagines the life of an otherwise anonymous woman, naming her Ophelia and thus giving voice to a “mute” namesake. Trethewey’s Ophelia is transformed from the object of the male gaze, a commodity of art and commerce, to a sensitive and savvy subjectivity. The book follows the speaker’s progress from prostitute and objet d’art to aspiring photographer, to a coherent self who responds to a client with canny self-possession, “I looked away from my reflection — / small and distorted — in his lens.”
These lines convey how double consciousness, that enduring panopticon of race, thrives on the details: Ophelia sees how a white patron sees her — “small and distorted” — and looks away in order to preserve how she ultimately sees herself. That such a complex dynamic of social history, self-fashioning, and ethical consciousness should arise out of looking at an old photograph suggests that Trethewey may be one of our most sage and innovative practitioners of ekphrasis.
In Native Guard, her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, she refracts the history of the Louisiana Native Guards, a black regiment during the Civil War, against painful memories of losing her mother, opening up a rich inquiry into what constitutes an honorable life and, conversely, the hard work of honoring the dead forgotten by public record. Such easy summation, though, belies the difficulty of how convincingly she juxtaposes historical events with autobiographical narrative.
In her recently published fourth book Thrall, Trethewey continues to use ekphrasis to speak out through other arts —“ekphrasis”in Greek means “to speak out”—and turns to paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly the work of Juan de Pareja and Mexican Casta paintings of mixed race unions.
Thrall’s title poem, another dramatic monologue, echoes Ophelia’s double-seeing: the speaker Juan de Pareja can only attempt a self-portrait by painting from the perspective of his master, V: “a self-portrait / To make it / I looked at how / my master saw me then / I narrowed my eyes”. Pareja is first Velazquez’s slave and then, later, his apprentice. He is the artist and the subjugated, embodying a duality of identities — socially and politically powerless, yet made powerful by perspective. Trethewey brilliantly demonstrates that by enabling the cultural and historical imagination ekphrasis — one art’s description of another art — can lead to allegory.
The story of Juan de Pereja reverberates the history of race through a specific individual experience and directs contemporary readers to make connections between past and present, public and private. Allegory’s power to constellate narrative meaning beyond the story being told becomes, through the seemingly straightforward work of observing a piece of art, in Trethewey’s hands, an exchange between writer and reader, between the narratives on the page and in one’s life.
Thrall reveals a poet advancing into a mature poetics and a compelling vision of racial imagination in the 21st century, and it is her most powerful and difficult work to date. That its publication coincided with her appointment as poet laureate grants us the opportunity to examine her work as a poet and public citizen and how these two roles feed each other.
JC: I’m curious about your most recent book Thrall. One of the press releases from the Library of Congress describes you as a poet-historian and you’ve talked about your obsession with history and how one of the ways you bear witness is through research and finding ways to engage with history outside of what we would call documented history. What does it mean to be a poet-historian?
NT: Well, my favorite poet-historian is Robert Penn Warren. I think that label comes from the Librarian of Congress making an association between some of the work that I do and the subject matter and some of things that Warren took on as well, particularly the Civil War. I don’t mind it at all because I’m, as you said, deeply engaged with history and drawn to understanding the past as a way to make sense of the present. So that’s to say that even when I’m writing about events that have taken place in the past I am always writing about the present. For example, writing about the Louisiana Native Guards in my last collection, Native Guard, I recount the history of an imagined soldier who is a probable human being. He could have existed. I used the research to imagine him and the historical setting he was in, the actual events of a particular historical moment. But the poem is really about historical memory and historical erasure. I’m thinking about Orwell’s words, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” If you’re able to control this moment right now, it’s because you have a handle on naming and controlling what the past was. Who gets to erect the monuments? Who is creating the narrative that is inscribed on the landscape of the United States? In the South, it’s the Daughters of the Confederacy. When we name our roads and bridges and monuments and all those things after Confederate heroes, after staunch segregationists, after all those people, that is a way of controlling the present. And so my intention in poems is to try to tell a fuller version of history, to consider things that might help change the future that we’re headed to, to make a world that is more inclusive, just, and humane than at our present moment.
JC: How does this affect your writing process? What does that look like when you’re working through the history, especially the material history of the archive? Because the poems never read like a textbook, you transcend historical documentation. After all, you always delve into the imagination. How exactly does research become a poetics?
NT: I remember soon after the publication of my second collection, Belloq’s Ophelia, I was asked to participate in a roundtable discussion that the Journal of American History was having about genres of history, different ways of doing history and different ways of presenting history to the public. There was a historical novelist, a poet, a museum curator, a documentary filmmaker, a journalist, and an academic historian. Doing the research to write that book I immersed myself in so much of the history — going to the archive, reading secondary literature, looking at the photographs, looking at an almanac of the weather in New Orleans for a particular year. Then, before I could write I had to shove it all aside. I had to forget everything from the front of my brain, or at least in the foreground of my thinking, to forget all that I had read. But it was still there for me to access as I tried to write poems. “Intuition is the result of prolonged tuition.” It didn’t go away, but I had to get out of the mode of researcher and back into the mode of poet. And there were times — I could probably look in my notebooks right now and see notes to myself saying to myself exactly what you said, “This better not sound like a little essay in poetry about history.” I would give myself directives to stop accessing the place where I had stored all those things in my mind and instead look at the photographs again, just respond to what I am seeing. I think it’s a way of making yourself, after feeding the intellect, go back to allowing the heart to drive the responses with the hope that in doing so you will have that melding. You’ll create something that touches not only the intellect but also the heart.
JC: One of the most important words in Thrall, one that’s so chillingly deployed in the first poem of the book “Elegy,” is the word “learned.” Because the guiding inquiry of Thrall is “how do we learn?” How do we learn to see, how do we learn to uncover these “invisible lines,” to borrow the poem’s phrasing, and how do we acquire knowledge? How, too, do we come to terms with the limits of knowledge?
NT: That first word “learned” and then “knowledge” were very critical to me in writing the book, in thinking about histories of knowledge. It’s an intellectual history — it is about how knowledge is created and passed down to us across centuries. But the book is also about other kinds of knowledge, like emotional knowledge, what gets inherited and passed down through families. It seemed like the right intersection of a larger public knowledge and the intimate, more personal knowledge that gets manifested in families. Exploring this history of ideas of race across time and space with ideas of race in my own family, about difference, about otherness, is where I started.
After looking for the first time at the Casta paintings, I wanted to know why these ideas about racial difference existed, where they came from and why they persisted. Even now. And so I began looking at the places where even the images themselves become a way of passing down this knowledge. For example, in “Miracle of the Black Leg” I go back to 12th-century narratives and 14th-, 15th-, and 16th-century images of black and white bodies — how they’re being used, their positions in the frame of a painting or a carving of some kind. That was a place for me to begin looking at that past, which, of course, took me to the Enlightenment, when some philosophers were codifying racial differences, ideas that have stayed with us even now. My father always talked to me about the Enlightenment. I’ve had these discussions with him my whole life. It wasn’t until I started working on this book that I began to see what else was happening, what else was brought to us from Enlightenment thinking. It almost seems incongruous that these two things could go together — ideas of white supremacy alongside other important Enlightenment ideas. And yet, they did. Which means also that these things can go with a very loving relationship between a father and a daughter — even in a relationship like that ideas of difference can exist. And that, I suppose, is what I learned and what was hardest to know: that my father could both love me very much but also harbor some ideas about difference that were learned, that probably come to him through the knowledge that is given from the Enlightenment philosophers he read.
JC: You bring up imagery, which is also primary to your poetics and which is itself one of Thrall’s subjects. In “Taxonomy,” you write, “Before this he was nothing: blank // canvas — before image or word, before / a last brush stroke fixed him in his place.” So much about the experience of otherness is about being seen and then not seen, and within a sociocultural context, race is above all visual. I live in a small-town in Ohio and it amazes that I’ll go into a store and people will speak very slowly to me because they look at me and think I’m not American. They think I don’t know English!
NT: Right. At that moment, you realize exactly how they are perceiving you, how they’re painting your portrait onto that blank canvas.
JC: Well, to them, the image of America, of an American, does not look like me. So they automatically “figure out” who I am based on this, their perception. And imagery is so important in your work not just because of those lines in “Taxonomy,” but because it is, in one important sense, through image that we understand race. You’re also obsessed — and correct me if I’m wrong — with writing about visual art. There are numerous poems based on paintings in Thrall and throughout your work you have poems about photographs, which, to me, emblematizes modern history — the advent of technology — as well as personal history — the snapshot. In your poems and in your imagination, where do words and images meet? What does ekphrasis enable you to do as a poet, especially when writing about race? I suspect that for you there’s a connection between writing about art and writing about otherness. I thought about this, too, when you were talking about forms of presenting history — yes, of course, photographs and paintings are types of history, and poems!
NT: I have a two-part answer to this, and I hope I can sound sharp, lucid, and not garbled. Thinking on the one hand about the photograph, which is where I started. I started writing about photographs because I think that I was drawn to them for both what they give us and what they don’t give us. Susan Sontag has said a camera’s rendering of reality must hide as much as it discloses. I like that, on one hand, it can be seen as documentary. Photographs catch moments that allow us to have a glimpse into something that has occurred and that we can look at. But at the same time, I’m fully aware that angles, croppings, all such formal decisions keep us from some part of the “evidence.” Between what we can see and what is being withheld from us is the place of real excitement for me — that is the site of seeing that I’m trying to figure out, to try to grapple with, to bring to the surface of our perception as readers.
In paintings, I think I like to turn to them because they are, as you said, also historical. They’re historical because like a poem they record something about the cultural moment, the cultural memory of the people, the cultural perception of the artist who made it, who is of course responding to the time in which she lives and works. So they do that work for us. But I’m also interested in — and you know the kinds of paintings I tend to write about are narrative, figural paintings — like the “Black Leg” or “Taxonomy,” the Casta paintings — that are trying to show us something about what was going on in a particular time. What I like about writing them is that I think they help me begin a poem in the act of observation only, at least to start. What I like about writing them is that they help me maintain a kind of restraint that I’m going for. I want to present history with a kind of distance — in the beginning, I should say. I want to start by saying to the reader, “Just look at this; I don’t have to interpret for you what it means. Just look at it.” Will a reader not also begin to notice that every time we see this representation in “Miracle of the Black Leg,” (in terms of the composition of the image) that the white body is always high in the scene and the black body is always low. I don’t think I have to tell the reader what that means. But I can say, “What do you think about that? Why across centuries is this always presented this way?”
And of course later on, the diction itself is going to suggest my own perception of it. I think writing about a painting allows me to say, “Please take a look at this.” It’s like me walking you up to a window and asking you to look out and tell me what you see. That’s where I like to begin. And of course the poem then moves away from that to the figurative values that help to make sense of what is being seen and that give you my perception of it. I don’t need to convince you because by showing it to you first before I begin to interpret it in my own way you might come along and agree.
JC: You’re writing about painting from several centuries ago, but it’s not that different from how we perceive race relations today.
NT: You know, I don’t know. I’m not even sure why I didn’t. Well, one thing I could say is that none of them were arresting to me in the ways that the other ones were. But who knows what else was going on in my mind that kept me from writing about those. I can’t be a reliable narrator about that.
JC: I really appreciate that in your lecture “Why I Write” you say that you don’t always know why you’re writing, the subject matter is a means of discovery and you don’t know what that end discovery will be, and I completely understand that. If you always know what’s going to happen, there’s no surprise, to paraphrase Frost.
NT: Well, going back to your earlier question on what I learned, there are so many poems where I didn’t know where I was going, and by the time I knew I was stunned at what had been going on in my head that had finally found its way out. One of those poems was “Knowledge.” I was drawn to it because here was a woman being dissected on the table with a caption about these four men who were trying to ascertain the “essence of ideal of female beauty.” The image itself is so strangely jaunting, the way that the anatomist is opening the flaps that he’s just cut into her chest and peering into it as if he’s a magician. It’s really strange and I was drawn to it. I had no idea that I was going to make the turn in the poem to feeling like that person, being parsed by the language that my father used in a poem of his. [ “I study / my crossbreed child.”] I’ve known that poem most of my life. I think he probably wrote it when I was four years old, so I’d been hearing it at readings for many, many years and always with this feeling of discomfort. It’s a very sweet poem, but I never knew why I was not comfortable when he got to that line. Not until writing “Knowledge” did I figure it out: there’s something about the use of that language, however he meant it, that still rendered me as an object of study. An object of fascination because of my otherness. Not to mention that technically humans cannot be cross-breeds.
JC: What does he think of the poem? Do you ever talk to him about that line?
NT: Yes. He tries to convince me, and I understand what he’s saying, that he wasn’t intending it to be hurtful, and I say, of course, you weren’t. I think he’s had a long time to change the word, to find a better word, but he says he was trying to point out a cultural moment, the way people would refer to a mixed-race child [at that time]. And that may be very true, but that doesn’t have anything to do with how I feel as the child. So those are two different things.
JC: The intention to hurt doesn’t have to be there to cause hurt.
NT: Right. It’s a poem that’s about the fact that he has a mixed-race child and a black wife looking out the window, but I think he could have called me other things that wouldn’t have sounded so in the realm of animal husbandry. Other words might have been used. Because it is a very sweet poem which is why I don’t think that word is right for the tone of his poem.
JC: Is he going to change it?
NT: I don’t think so! No, I don’t think so.
Trethewey’s poems recognize the inevitable influence of public life on private experience. Auden wrote of Yeats in his elegy to that monolithic influence on modern literature, “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.” Trethewey similarly writes poems that bear the weight of our nation’s most uncomfortable knowledge, a hurt that is for this exceptional poet as much privately endured as it is publicly evinced.
Perhaps the boldest accomplishment of Native Guard is the seamlessness with which Trethewey joins her personal grief. From the vantage point of the grieving daugher and the child of interracial marriage, she writes of her Deep South as a student of public and private histories from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement to the environmental and sociocultural devastations in the Gulf Coast. As much a labor of love as a critique, Trethewey’s poems endeavor to understand “a world / made by displacement,” a world that also happens to be her home.
Even the soldiers’ ruminations in “Native Guard” consider the fractured and fraught nature of home for African Americans. In that poem, “the landscape’s / song of bondage” invokes the messy grandeur of Whitman, whose own pastoral lyric “This Compost” mourns the American landscape as a battlefield: “Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient, / It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions.” Moreover, this idea of home contains greater misgivings about family life, as the poet remembers her childhood in “Mythology,” a lyric sequence in Thrall that passes the character of Odysseus from father to daughter, who is finally realizes that she is “the captive listener // cleaving to his words. I must be / singing this song to myself.” One need only remember that it was Athena who first sent Odysseus on his wanderings and her absence in “Mythology” calls forth the formidable absence of the mother, whose ghost hovers over Thrall as a muse and figure of enigmatic wisdom.
Like Auden, Trethewey knows the plaintive marriage grief and praise can form in elegy. It is the mother whose unknowability and loss motivate the daughter’s inquiry into the historical and personal past, a time that precedes her but also necessarily makes her. Trethewey may resist the ecstatic lamentation of Whitman or the epic sweep of Homer, but her poems nevertheless demand we, on the one hand, unearth corruptions of the past that stains our present and, on the other, persist in finding our way home, no matter how arduous the route.
JC: My next question is about Thrall and the word “captive.” There are the lines: “I must be the captive listener / cleaving to his words”; there are others: “the past holds us captive” and I think what’s especially smart and elegant is how as the word moves through the book the reader comes to recognize the weird semantic distance between the words “captive” and “captivation.” “Captivation” might describe what triggers the ekphrastic moment, or what it feels like to be absorbed by a painting. Looking at the past engenders a similar “captivation.” And I can’t help but think of Emily Dickinson, who writes, “Captivity is consciousness, so’s liberty.” This is an unwieldy question, I realize, but how would you explain these uses of captivity and captivation? Maybe you can meditate about that weird semantic distance and about how your attention to language is so deeply intertwined with your attention to subject matter as an example like “captive” and “captivation” attests.
NT: Yes. That’s a great question, Jen. Again, the question is going to be way better than what I can give you as an answer. But I’m going to meditate and see if this helps. It begins for me with the word “thrall.” I was finishing up my other book — I’ve talked about this — looking up the word “native” in the dictionary and what comes up first is not what I expected — something that would suggest a person or plant native to a region, but instead, someone born into the condition of servitude, “a thrall.” So what is given in the definition is the suggestion of colonialism, of empire, in the sense that the colonized are the “natives” those who are “in thrall” to outside forces. From there, I looked up “thrall.” Part of the definition of “thrall” is captivity. If you are “in thrall,” you are a captive of. But then there’s “captivation” which is to be “enthralled.” I am trying to look at both of those things at once, “thrall” and “captivity,” of being in thrall to language that seeks to name us as other or different and less than. But there are lovely kinds of captivation, too — being enthralled by beauty. And then there’s the captivity of history, of family, of lineage, of inheritance.
So looking up “native” took me to “thrall” and then to “captivity:” the captivity of Juan de Pareja, who literally started out as a slave owned by Velasquez, but then becomes captivated by the work of painting, of being a painter. He’s captivated by that art and wants to make art himself.
It’s also about apprenticeship. I think a lot of the poems in Thrall are about a kind of apprenticeship. That’s why I start with the idea of what I learned. Something about the way that I am is something I’ve learned from my father. It doesn’t change the fact that I’m engaging with and in myself. I always think back to Yeats: “of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”
And that’s why the poem “Elegy” begins the book. I want to set out at that moment and say: “I’m guilty of this, too. I am ruthless. I’m not even going to be in the moment with you, Father, while we’re fishing because I need to make sure I hold onto this for later on, to make use of in a poem. And I learned that from you.” When I was growing up, I couldn’t say two sentences without my father pulling out his notebook to write something down. I always felt that he was gathering material for his poems. So I learned to observe the world and be in it in a certain way. By the time I wrote the poem “Enlightenment,” I was considering kinds of knowledge production and the legacy of ideas about racial difference — deeply ingrained and unexamined notions of white supremacy — and how the maintenance of such ideas renders us other to each other.
JC: You’re explaining the ways in which captivity can become captivation and how that process can sometimes be liberating. With the painter Juan de Pareja, his captivity lead to captivation, which lead to an apprenticeship that taught him a kind of power that could give him a voice and a power and freedom he wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s interesting. It’s also painted/pained with a complicated history of subjugaton and “Elegy” has a similar trajectory. You learn it, you hate it, but you also need it to be who you are.
NT: There’s something else that I was trying to deal with in Thrall.
It’s about my mother, the way that she figures in the book. For me, Jen, in recent years, I have found that there are ways that my mother gets erased from discussions about me as a poet and, in many ways, me as a person. It’s so easy for people to attribute all of my work and success as a person, as a writer, to the influence of my father because he’s a writer, but also embedded in that is something darker, which is that he’s my white parent, the one that some people automatically assume (because of those unexamined notions of supremecy) “made me better.” It’s hurt me deeply, and so I’m trying to show in the book that the so-called “taint” [my mother’s blackness] is what causes me to be a writer and makes me what I am. That that responsibility goes not only to the white father but also to the black mother — and perhaps primarily so.
JC: Well, I think she’s present in the book and to me Thrall is very much a continuation of Native Guard, which is an elegy to your mother, as well as an investigation into elegy. With Thrall, I felt there was a history being righted because of and by virtue of the mother’s presence. She is one of the “invisible lines” and her presence, even her absence, has to be understood. That’s the difficult knowledge: to recognize the great love from the father (and for the father), but also to acknowledge the complicated ways in which racial thinking is constructed into us without our conscious knowing.
NT: Yes. The last section has a lot more to do with the mind and memory and how they work, how both tell us something true but are also unreliable. In “Calling,” I’m really trying to deal with that by beginning with the question, “Why not make a fiction of the mind’s fictions?” [In the poem,] I recall a few images that don’t exactly go together but they’ve been squashed together in my head after many years of trying to remember or recollect what happened on that trip [with my mother and father]. And so the images are very much just these sensations: the amount of light, the sound of water, the sun as we drove through the desert, and the moment of drowning. I still have a vivid image of stepping off the edge of the pool and going under. I’m only three years old, and so I don’t remember being afraid. I just remember going under and looking up and seeing my mother at the edge waving frantically. She couldn’t swim, and so she had to stand there and look at me until somebody could get me out.
I’ve been trying to make sense of that image my whole life and this poem gives an interpretation. It may not be the real interpretation, or the only one, but I think that’s the use of writing something autobiographical, that it may not tell us enough of the truth. It’s not a documentary of what happened on that trip or that day, but it gives you great insight, I think, into the history of my mind at this contemporary moment. I’m writing this book because I so need to say, “No, it’s my mother, that is why I am who I am.”
My mother was raised a Baptist then became a Catholic convert, and I do not know why. So I try to imagine reasons: she might been attracted to the beauty of Catholic ceremony, or that, in the ’60s, during the Civil Rights Movement, the Catholic Church was out front for social justice. Maybe that’s why she converted. But I also imagine she might have been drawn to Catholocism because on that trip to Mexico she would have seen altars depicting the black madonna, and that they would have enthralled her. These representations of black women were different from the ones she saw growing up in the Jim Crow South in Mississippi. And then, when I think of myself on that same trip, looking up from the water, I see it too, in her. My calling to be a writer, to write the way I do, is all because of that. It’s a story I want to believe.
JC: There’s a crystallizing moment where you’re looking at a Robert Frank photograph of “a white infant in the dark arms / of a woman who must be the maid,” and you realize it could be a photograph of your mother carrying you as a baby. You describe her as having an inscrutable mask. A reader can’t help but wonder in the poems about the father where the mother is. Is she watching over them? After all, she’s the link between the father and daughter that needs to be understood.
NT: It’s so crucial for me that someone recognizes how in the first section of “The Miracle of the Black Leg” I call the black leg a “dark appendage” and by the fourth section it’s a “dark amendment.” You have to read that next to “Enlightenment” — just who is made better by the so-called “taint” of blackness? We often talk about children as appendages. In my thinking I’m not my father’s appendage. I’m his amendment.
JC: I was reading about something you said about being in psychological exile. The poet Claude McKay writes about being homeless, literally and emotionally homeless, and I think this is in conversation with DuBois’s question in The Souls of Black Folk, “Why did God make me a stranger and an outcast in my own house?” This was both their homes, and it’s our home.
NT: Exactly, exactly.
JC: It’s frustrating, too, because as writers of color — and this segues into my next question — we’re writing in a tradition in which we don’t necessarily fit. You’ve mentioned Margaret Walker’s “For My People” as being an important poem to you. I’d love to end our conversation by asking you about what kind of poems you turn to to help you live, and especially as we’re talking the Monday after two terrible tragedies — the shootings in Connecticut and the sudden death of your good friend, the wonderful poet Jake Adam York. Other than the Auden poem, what poems are you turning to right now? What poems do you give to people to help them survive?
NT: “Those Winter Sundays” is one for me. As is Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” which I recite sometimes when I’m walking, when I need my footsteps in rhythm with something. I’ll find myself reciting that poem.
I encountered Lisel Mueller’s “When I Am Asked” in the last few years. It’s a poem that takes me back to the Auden poem. It’s seemingly straightforward, and simple, but it’s more than that, and it touches me deeply in the way that the Auden poem does because she considers “the indifference of nature” to our losses and grieving. Mueller concludes the poem:
[I] placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me.
I also keep a very short poem of Lucille Clifton’s in my head, “why some people be mad at me sometimes” —
they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
and i keep on remembering
That says to me, “Girl, you gotta go write your poems.” That’s my permission from Lucille Clifton to write what I must write.
Jennifer Chang is the author of The History of Anonymity. She is an assistant professor in English at George Washington University.